May 03

MOTU 896mk3 Audio Interface / Digital Mixer Review and Tips

I’ve been working with computer audio since the 80’s, and I’ve used a number of different little boxes to get audio from a microphone and instruments and into the computer – mostly on the Macintosh.

Mark of the Unicorn (aka MOTU) is a company that’s been around since those early days of Macintosh audio.  Their “Digital Performer” Mac-only DAW is still one of the most respected platforms in an increasingly crowded field.

I recently had the opportunity to upgrade from my M-Audio Profire 610 Firewire Audio Interface to a MOTU 896mk3 Audio Interface & Digital Mixer.

MOTU 896Mk3

The MOTU 896Mk3 - image ©MOTU

My frustration with the ProFire had a lot to do with interference – as I’ve posted before, it was very prone to picking up DVI interference from flat-panel monitors.

While I had been able to get by with the ProFire by using better cables and routing things carefully, I recently upgraded to a new flat-panel monitor which ran at a higher refresh rate.  Once again, the ProFire started picking up the whine, and nothing I could do would get rid of it.  The 896 has been absolutely silent on FireWire. No whine from the monitor, and no noise from guitar pickups or the USB connection for my Fretlight.

In addition, I was looking at being able to record acoustic drums, and the two microphone preamps on the ProFire just weren’t enough to be able to do that.  I did a great deal of research, and in the end chose the MOTU.

Here’s why:

  • 8 microphone preamps with built-in soft and hard limiting
  • 8 analog outputs, each with their own mix of all other inputs
  • 4 ADAT Digital I/O ports, for a total of 16 inputs and 16 outputs (more useful than you’d think…)
  • Extensive front-panel meters and controls
  • Full-19″ rack width, but only ~10″ deep, and only weighing ~ 4 lbs.
  • ADAT Ports can be used to connect another 8 mic preamps and MIDI I/O via a MOTO “8-Pre” box
  • Extremely well-reviewed and tested software and drivers, including many audio analysis tools
  • Firewire 800 I/O to the computer, so works on Mac and PC
  • Recommendation from my friend Brant (based on his pro-recording friend’s recommendation)

What’s missing compared to the ProFire (and other competitors):

  • MIDI I/O (I already have a separate M-Audio USB MIDI box, so this was easy)
  • “Octane” Mic-Preamps (896 mic pre’s are very flat, not as “nice out of the box” as the ProFire)
  • Lots of Software Returns

Dealing with “Flat” Microphone Preamps

The Octane Preamps on the ProFire sound very good for vocals out of the box. Their “natural” EQ is just very flattering.  The 896’s PreAmps are “flat”: they have no particular EQ response.  This is good, in that they are more flexible, but bad in that I’m still working on finding EQ settings in my DAW that recapture the “natural” magic of the Octane pre’s.  I’m still working on this…hopefully a full report later.  I will say that a bit of a boost in the midrange seems to help.  The preamps in the 896 don’t sound bad, they are just very transparent.  The Octane pre’s were part of my sound, the 896 pre’s don’t contribute one way or the other, they stay out of the way.

The gain knob for each preamp on the ProFire is notoriously frustrating though, since it’s a “tapered” potentiometer – the useful range is all within a couple degrees of the knob’s travel.  The 896’s knob seems to have a greater useful range, although it too tends to be smaller than I’d like.

Software Returns

Software returns are the ability to route audio from software on the computer into *inputs* on the device, so they can be mixed into the *outputs* of the device, just like the physical inputs to the device.  You can think of them as “virtual” inputs.  The are critical if you are crafting multiple monitor mixes that include software playback  or software instruments.

The 896 has one stereo return.  You can assign the audio from any output to the return.  However, in order to craft custom monitor mixes for multi-musician jamming and overdubbing, you typically need at least 8 returns.

Here’s my trick to add a bunch of software returns: I used a TOSLink Optical cable to connect the ADAT A Output jack into the ADAT A Input jack.  This automatically connects all 8 ADAT Digital Outputs on the to all 8 ADAT Digital Inputs – all with one cable.  Full digital, no generation loss.

I use the 896’s ADAT Outputs (which are easy to select in any DAW, in my case REAPER) as the outputs for my playback and digital instruments. The audio goes out through the ADAT A output jack, in through the ADAT A input jack, and appears on the ADAT A Inputs in the 896’s CueMix FX mixer software.  I can now mix these into the analog outputs of the 896 to create monitor mixes for each performer.

Example DAW Output Settings:

  • DAW Drum Mix Buss Track: ADAT Output 1
  • DAW Bass Mix Track: ADAT Output 2
  • DAW Rhythm Guitar Track: ADAT Output 3
  • DAW Lead Guitar Mix Track: ADAT Output 4
  • DAW Vocal Mix Track: ADAT Output 5
  • DAW Synth Track (Live and Playback): ADAT Output 6

Example Monitor Mixes In CueMix:

  • Vocalist Overdub/Jam Headphone Monitor Mix:
    • 60% Analog Input 1 (their mic input)
    • 10% ADAT Input 1 (Drum Mix Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 2 (Bass Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 3 (Rhythm Guitar Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 4 (Lead Guitar Track Playback)
  • Bassist Overdub/Jam Headphone Monitor Mix:
    • 60% Analog Input 2 (Bass Amp mic/DI)
    • 10% ADAT Input 1 (Drum Mix Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 5 (Vocal Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 3 (Rhythm Guitar Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 4 (Lead Guitar Track Playback)

If you are tracking new parts from scratch, you might not need playback, but you might have a click coming from the DAW for the drummer, or scratch drum tracks, or live synth from a virtual instrument.

Either way, this trick lets you route lots of channels of audio from software into the 896 and treat it just like any other input.

I also run a TOSLink cable (with a mini-TOSLink adapter) from the headphone jack of my Macbook Pro (which is secretly an optical port as well as an analog headphone port) into the ADAT B Input of the 896, so I can mix 2-channel audio from programs like Skype and iTunes that won’t let me select specific device output pairs.  Note that to use one of the ADAT inputs as a TOSLink input, you need to set it to “TOSLINK” mode (as opposed to “lightpipe” mode) using the “MOTU Audio Setup” application.

Going from XLR Outputs to Headphone Monitors

The 896’s analog audio outs, which we want to use as headphone monitor mixes, are XLR connectors.  These balanced connectors won’t go directly into headphones and you usually want to combine two of them to make a stereo headphone mix.  To do this, you need another box, and I chose the Behringer AMP800 mini headphone amp.  With some XLR to TRS cables, you can go from the analog outs on the 896 into the mix inputs on the AMP800, and create volume-controllable headphone jacks for your jammers and trackers to listen to.  Add a few long headphone extension cables like the ones from the JamHub, your favorite headphones, and you are in business!

The 896 does have two headphone outputs that you can mix to separately, so if you only ever have two people tracking or jamming, you don’t need this setup.

Other Changes

The ProFire had all TRS Analog I/O Jacks, while the 896 has all XLR Outputs (and dual TRS/XLR Analog Inputs), so I had to buy a couple of new cables, especially to connect to my Yamaha HS-50M / HS-10W studio monitor speakers.

I was also able to finally get rid of my ancient Behringer mixer, which had seen better days. There is a nice knob on the front of the 896 I can use to control the overall level of things, as well as input levels. I have everything running into the 896, so I can truly use it both as an audio interface as well as a digital mixer.

I have my POD X3 Live connected to Analog Inputs 7/8 from the ‘live’ outputs, and I have a S/PIDF cable running from the S/PDIF output of the X3 into the S/PDIF input of the 896. I did have to adjust the sample rate of the output of the X3 to match the 896 to avoid hearing anything but digital noise there.

To be honest, I don’t really like the sound of the S/PDIF output, and I typically run the “live” analog sound, and I use the CueMix software that comes with the 896 to mute/unmute the X3.  I could use the knobs on the front to turn it down when I’m not using it (it tends to have “guitar cable noise” if I don’t), but I like where I have them set for recording levels.  But it’s there, so if I ever need to use Analog 7/8 for something else (e.g. drum mics), I can still get the X3 audio into the mix.

Summary

I really like the 896mk3. It’s super-light, so even though it’s bigger than the ProFire, it uses a standard power cord (rather than ProFire’s giant wall-wart), so it’s similarly portable.

Its noise-free, and software-crash free (even under 64-bit Mac OS X).  More than any others, those are the two I have to have.

I was also able to get rid of the mixer from my setup.  I had to add the MIDI interface back in, but I only use it very rarely, so I’m not terribly concerned.

I was pretty frustrated with the lack of software returns until I figured out that ADAT loopback trick, but since I got that working it’s been just a dream.  The super-smarties at headphone.com helped get me on the right path of choosing a headphone amp, which was invaluable.

I do wish MOTU would add more software returns to this device, or even just let me virtually patch outs to ins in the mixer, rather than having to use a patch cable.  MIDI I/O would also be a great help for this device, as well as allowing the front-panel “main-out” headphone output to be routed separately from the monitor speakers.

I suspect I’ll eventually end up buying a MOTU 8-Pre to get the 8 extra microphone preamps (acoustic drums use a ton of mics), but that uses the same port that I’m using for my ADAT loopback.  However, I can chain it on the Firewire bus instead of running into the 896.  Since the Mac makes it easy to create virtual devices as aggregates of physical devices (using the Audio/MIDI Setup Control Panel), this is probably a viable option.

The front-panel knobs are very small, and can be a bit frustrating to grab in a hurry, although almost all of them can be tweaked virtually via Cuemix FX, so it’s not too big of a deal.  All the I/O except for the headphones is on the back, which it a bit annoying when regularly connecting and disconnecting mics for podcasting.  I typically just leave the mic cables connected to Analog 1 & 2, and have the cables neatly hanging from my desk nearby.

There are a number of features I’ll likely never use, such as AES/EBU I/O, and Word Clock I/O.  For the average home studio, it seems like MIDI I/O would be a better choice.

I’d also like to be able to use the modeled EQ, compression, reverb, and other onboard F/X from my DAW as plugins, rather than having to track with them in the signal path.

I’d buy it again based on the noiselessness and stability alone, and I hope that the tricks I’ve outlined here help you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine!

Jul 20

Clearvue Cyclones Shop-Vac Dust Collector Review

The other day, I was again seriously looking at getting a full-on dust collection system for the shop, and realized that I was going to have to spend a minimum of $500 to get anything decent, and that it was going to take up a lot of room in my already-crowded shop.

In browsing around, I came across Bill Pentz’s site, on which he fanatically rages about the dangers of hobbyist dust collectors.  Bill’s definitely on a mission, but he has some interesting information on his site, and I recommend checking it out just to get another point of view if nothing else.

Anyway, there is a tiny company called Clearvue Cyclones that builds cyclonic dust collectors to the Bill Pentz designs.

The point of these dust collectors is the same point as those Dyson vacuums.  By setting up the wind in the vac the right way (like a cyclone), you blow the dirt/dust into the collection area directly, and not just blow it through a filter, relying on the filter to stop the dust from getting blown back into the room.

There are two advantages to this:

  1. You blow less dust back into the room, because most of the dust never even gets to the filter that’s blowing back into the room.
  2. Your vac retains it’s power longer between filter cleanings, because less material ever gets to it to clog it.  (Like the Dyson catchphrase “The first vacuum that doesn’t lose suction!”)

However, the Clear Vue designs, while they look extremely effective, and can be home-made or partially home made, are still around $1000.  As they say on their site, it’s still a good deal, and I’m inclined to agree, but I don’t have $1000 to spend on dust collection right now.

So then I spied their cute little shop vac conversion unit, pictured below.  As it turns out, I just happen to own a WD1665 RIDGID Shop-Vac, which is the one that this conversion unit works with.

Spoiler, this is a pic of my shopvac with the unit on it, so you can guess that I bought one. 🙂

Anyway, it works.

You take off the orange lid and detach the motor from your combo blower/vac, and replace it with this fairly massive lid, made from plastic.  This lid is not a polished made-in-vast-quantities-in-China product you’d buy from Home Depot, but an ingenious device hand made in someone’s garage.

The point is that the dust comes in at the top of the cyclone, and gets swirled down into the body of the vac, without the bulk of it ever getting to the filter or the motor.  (This is what they call a “two stage” dust collector – stage 1 is this cyclone, stage 2 is the filter for whatever was too fine to get caught by stage 1).

Normally, the shop vac sucks air through the motor and filter and then blows it into the body, and then out the side port of the motor.

I can vouch that normally it blows around almost as much dust as it sucks in.

With the cyclone attachment lid, I felt that it not only remained powerful even after 30 minutes of continuous use (normally it goes down to about 1/2 power after 15 minutes from filter clogging), but that the amount of dust being blown out the side of the motor was significantly reduced.

So, I’d say it was a successful product overall – it did what it claimed to do.  However, I did encounter one issue.  When I was cleaning out the enclosed base of my hybrid table saw, I sucked up a lot of fairly matted wood shavings – they had matted themselves into a pretty tight blob.

When this blob hit the little cyclonic chamber, it immediately blocked it.  Obviously, this wouldn’t happen with one of the full-size units, but with my little guy, it choked it right up.  And, I didn’t notice for several minutes.  The bad news was that because of the clog, it immediately started blowing through the filter again – the good news, is that I wasn’t any worse off than I was with the base shop vac at that point.

I had to pull the lid off and prod the clog with a piece of scrap wood to clear it, which wasn’t too hard.

However, the clog caused a bunch of dust to clog up the top part of the cyclone a bit, and I couldn’t get up in there to clean it…it’s all sealed up.  It didn’t seem to affect performance once I started it again, but you can see that it looks dirty still.

I tried to blow it out with my compressor, but no go.  I’m assume it’s just aesthetic, and not a big deal.

Also, the unit is heavy enough, and the shop-vac wheels small enough compared to the joints in my concrete floor that it did tip over once as I was pulling it around…but it did that with the old lid as well.  The topper seemed to survive the tip-over just fine.

OK. Time for the bottom line.  Was it worth the sale price of $200 to get a cyclonic adapter for the shop vac that I already owned, and is it better enough that I don’t need a full-on dust collector now?

I like it, and as it sits right now, I’d buy it again.  I do wish that for $200 the fit and finish was a bit nicer (for example, you can see the UPC sticker is still on the PVC elbow), but as a maker of a high-tech homemade product myself, I know how difficult and expensive it is to jump over that hurdle without massive volume of sales.

I don’t think it’s any more powerful than my shop-vac was to begin with, but it retains it power longer.  I do think that it blows a whole lot less dust into the air while it’s running, and that’s the major advantage you get with this product.  I think it’s an admirable competitor to the $300 dust collectors you get from Delta or Grizzly, and even though it’s probably less powerful, it’s a lot more safe for your lungs.

And of course if you already have this particular shop-vac, and can convert it to most-of-the-time dust collection, then it’s a pretty good deal. 🙂

Clear-Vue’s customer service was also great, they shipped my product extremely quickly, and with no fuss!

All that said, I am saving up for one of their full-size units – maybe come tax refund time next year. My little guy, even with a brain transplant, is just not powerful enough to really slurp live dust out of my table saw, and I never did like dragging it around 😀 I just have to find a place to put the thing.   I wonder if I can mount it horizontally some how – I have a lot of ceiling height, if I could put the whole thing up and ceiling level and not take up any floor space, that’d be perfect!  I’ll have to ponder that one!

Cheers,

Tim

p.s. here’s a youtube video of this thing in action (it’s not me, it’s from the vendor):

Jul 20

D&D Podcast with Bob Salvatore

I don’t know how many of you listen to the
official D&D podcast with Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls, but the
episode that was an interview with Bob Salvatore was pretty
interesting, especially if you are a writer.

The hosting is, um, “rough”, but Bob’s comments are insightful as
to how writing and novels have changed over the last 50 years and why.

Even if you aren’t particularly a fan of Bob’s work, it’s really interesting to hear his thoughts.

Here’s a link to the podcast:

http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/pod/20061215a

Particularly, I thought that his comments that people like Tolkien
and Eco and Melville (who’s writing styles drive me crazy) had to be
very explicit in their descriptions, because they were writing for
readers who had no shared context – no one had see TV shows on dragons
and monks and whales, so they had to describe them in great detail.

Today, detailed description falls away and pacing and characters
become king. Which I think is an interesting reflection of the FtB
host’s frustration with the “Tour de Realms” type game.

We can see a tour of Ireland or Scotland on TV now, whereas in Tolkien’s day, his words were that tour.

Anyway, just thought people might be interested…

Jul 20

Torchwood Comments + Countrycide Rant

Well, I’ve seen the first five, and have the
next two to watch tonight. “Cyberwoman” was simply brilliant. The rest
are pretty good – “Small Worlds” reminded me a lot of the best
“monster” eps of “the X-Files”.

I am very impressed with the Jack Harkness character – far more than I ever thought I would be.

The sound on the show is mind-blowing – compared to even Doctor
Who, it’s simply a wall of sound that attacks your senses in all the
right places.

I agree, Eve’s teeth are, um, “British”, and unless you have a
Madonna/David Letterman fetish, they can definitely be distracting.

Also, even though I watch a fair share of British programming,
there is at least one time per episode when I have to roll back the
video to try and parse out what Eve is saying in her Welsh accent.

I will give Torchwood massive credit for one very very important
thing – their stories, while episodic, have gone out of their way to
involve these characters specifically.
Meaning it would be a different episode if there were a different set
of protagonists, because many of the plots infringe on the PCs personal
lives.

This is one of my Holy Grails of storytelling. If you could swap
out the PCs for a different group with no noticeable changes in plot,
then you are telling a plot, and not a story (again back to the Fantasy
vs. Sci-Fi thing – much Sci-Fi is focused on the plot ideas, and no so
much on the characters – Torchwood sidesteps that trend nicely).

OK. I must now rant upon the episode
“Countrycide”
. Having seen 80% of the X-Files episodes, I can say that
this one reminded me a lot of some of the best. Up until one specific
point.

*&*^SPOILERS(*&*(&

There is a part where Tosh is being chased by the main bad guy, and
is eventually being choked by him. Gwen and Owen show up, guns drawn to
save her. And then they get stood down! They have every chance in the
world to shoot the guy who is choking their close friend, and they
don’t take it. No protestations of innocence that convince them it’s
all a mistake, nothing. I screamed at the TV for 20 minutes. Nothing
from Tosh telling them that this is the main bad guy, or anything. For
pete’s sake, they could have just shot him and his accomplice in the
leg! They submit to being frog-marched back to where they are going to
be surely eaten. WTF!?

In the end, it’s the American alien, Captain Jack that has to break
down the door with a tractor and shoot everyone! And he just wounds
them!

There is a lot of good going for this episode, but it’s amazing to
me (good or bad, I’m not sure), that on British TV, they can show
snogging all day long, but to have a Brit use a gun to shoot a
non-monster just goes too far. Is this really how Brits are? Would
rather be eaten by cannibalistic villagers than shoot someone (even to
wound?). Shocked

And then the ending just made me ill on the character development front. Just Eww.

Argh!

Tim

Jul 20

Shadowmagic Review

I originally posted this review in 2007 elsewhere, but I need to get the word out here as well!

Just back from a week’s vacation . During the drive from here to
Santa Fe and back, we listened to a podcast novel by John Lenahan,
called “Shadowmagic”, which is available for free via iTunes,
podiobooks.com and shadowmagic.co.uk.

Originally written to read to his son, Shadowmagic is a light,
funny, and touching story of Irish mythology, prophecy, and teenage
attitude.

To say that the story is addictive would be an serious
understatement. Each chapter is a separate audio file, and Lenahan is a
master of the cliffhanger. Not since early Doctor Who have I been so
interested to see what happens in the next chapter of a serial.

I would compare it quite favorably with Princess Bride, although it is less a love story and more a coming-of-age story.

This is not a dark, evil, story of torture, horror, or blood and
guts. No one gets lead poured down their throat (I’m looking at you
Terry Goodkind). This is a tale of melodrama, fun, and just plain good
storytelling.

Lenahan is a stage magician and comedian, and his stunning ability
read his story (which is in the first person) is one of the main
reasons I recommend this audiobook so highly.

Much of the mythological elements of this tale are taken directly
from Irish mythology, so little of what you hear in that vein will be
shockingly new, but it’s told in a passionate, rollicking way that puts
a new shine on old favorite themes.

Anyway, I just enjoyed it so much I had to share!

Jun 24

Review of an old d20 (3.x) Module – Blood Royal

I originally wrote this back in 2004.  I just need to make sure that the world knows about this, so I’m reposting it here.


My group just finished attempting to play this scenario.

Let’s just say that it was so bad that not only did our entire party
die do to nothing but random die rolls, but the arbitrary nature of
this scenario so enraged all of the players that it took hours of
feather-smoothing to avoid having our gaming group break up over how
bad it was.

Encounter after encounter was a cliche’ filled
doens’t-matter-what-the-PC’s-do-they-will-get-screwed-by-the-dice crap.
Only halfway through this adventure, we just wanted to be DONE.

If there is anything to be learned from this scenario, it’s that you
NEED TO GIVE THE PLAYERS SOME CLUES AND A CHANCE TO USE THEM. Encounter
after encounter of 50/50 choices that lead to player death makes no one
happy, except a pureblood Gygaxian DM. Anyone who actually likes to
play this game, as opposed to ‘trying to win’ will not like this
scenario AT ALL.

It was nicely produced, and the maps we OK. It did feel fairly
disorganized, and it was difficult to find bits and pieces of info.

The style of event was in a word, juvenile. Over and over, our group
said ‘huh?’ and ‘you have to be kidding, right?’, and ‘why in the world
would my PC ever do this?’.

I can’t de-recommend this heartily enough.

To go into detail:

1) There is no connection for the PCs to this kingdom, other than
relying on the PCs good nature. The PCs never get a chance to really
become sympathetic to the situation, nor do they gain any trust of
their employers.

2) The ‘fairy-tale’ motif is cute, but quickly grows achingly cliche.

3) The ‘random dungeon’ in the middle is just a tossed-together
collection of fairy-tale-ripoff puns that are pooly balanced, and seem
designed to punish the players for just being there.

4) Many encounters require hours of endless skill checks, with failures that quickly kill PCs.

5) Very few encounters allow the PCs to use any strategy, or their
abilities to solve them, instead relying on very special abilities, or
very lucky rolls. Arbitrary.

6) There is no way for the PCs to leave and rest, to just plain quit.

On my top 10 worst scenarios of all time list.

Tim

May 27

D&D 4th Edition: Keep on the Shadowfell Review

Well, I spent the long drives this weekend reading through
the first WotC D&D 4e Module, “Keep on the Shadowfell”.  I also had the chance to run a few of the encounters with my wife, who enjoyed it quite a bit.

Executive Summary:

Keep on the Shadowfell is a fun, nicely produced product
that innovates with its presentation and rules rather that with its story –
which is a good side to error on for the first module of a new edition. If you are curious about 4e, you’ll find
everything you need in here to evaluate the new edition without buying a whole
set of new books, and worst case, you can use the nice poster maps with your
existing game. I definitely recommend
checking it out!

Production:

Overall, I was impressed with the production quality.

The module is laid out like an 80’s Pee Chee – you open the
folder, and there are a pair of opposed interior pockets, with circular cutouts
highlighting the new logo on the materials inside. I thought it was very nice.

It was definitely a lot better than the “stapled
booklet with the cover that has the only copy of the map, falls off, and gets
lost” style from days gone by. The
adventure book also stays open in front of you a lot better than the hardcover
modules from the last days of 3e as well.

The folder contains the DM’s adventure book, a booklet for
players that has quick-start rules and pre-gen characters, and three poster
battle maps.

The poster maps were mostly ones that had already been
published for use with D&D minis, but they redid them without the minis
stuff on them, which is nice. Even if
you weren’t going to go whole hog with 4e, I think you’d find them useful for
your games.

The first sentence of the scenario proper has a typo in it
(not one that a spellchecker would catch, thank heavens, but it puts one off
right away). Thankfully, such errors are
the exception, not the rule.

The interior maps and art are good, as well, and certainly
don’t detract from the overall.

I love the 2-page spread encounters (which were
common in the last days of 3e as well), and the new monster stat blocks are
easy enough to deal with.

I was really surprised how easily I was able to find the
information I was looking for throughout the product…if all of 4e is as well
organized, I’ll be very happy.

Between encounters, there are pages of information for new
DMs, which I found very nicely done, and a good way to introduced new DMs to
how to do things beyond what the rules lay out for you.

The Rules:

I’d played a bit of the 4e-converted D&D Minis rules,
and kept up with all the previews, so nothing was much of a surprise in the
rules for me. And, I have to say, other
than “instantaneous” actions, and the reworking of saving throws,
nothing much here really changes the spirit of the game, at least in my
opinion. The saving throws thing I think
is very nice, but the “instantaneous” actions is something I’m going
to keep my eye on.

What it does do is make the game a lot more fun. The first time my wife, playing the supplied
pre-gen Human Wizard, took out three kobolds with a single mini-fireball…at first level…she had a huge grin on her face. And the best part…it was still a TPK after
that. But she didn’t feel bad, because
she honestly felt like she had a chance, and was fighting till the very
end. (FYI…we were running *just* the
wizard with a reduced encounter…trying to get a feel for power levels – so the
encounter as written is not a likely TPK with a full party).

I suspect this will be a huge attraction to new players –
they get to do all sorts of cool stuff right away.

The rules summary at the front is pretty clear, and if
you’ve played a lot of 3.x it will be pretty easy to get going with. That said there are a lot of things that came
up during the game that I couldn’t fid rules for – standing up from prone, for
example. I suspect that the reason I couldn’t find a lot of these special
situation rules isn’t because they left them out or the rules summary, but
because they don’t exist any longer.

The major nervousness I have is with
“instantaneous” actions. While
I think it’s a conceptually important addition to the game (nothing stinks more
than having to wait for your turn to come back around to respond to something),
my experience with Attacks of Opportunity from 3e made me leery of having
players act not on their turn. It seems
to lead to a lot of confusion as to who is doing what and when. Maybe that’s just me.

I found that keeping track of what each monster can do as a
“Reaction” or an “Instantaneous” action took some getting
used to. I was somewhat used to using
the players’ turns to plot out what the monsters were going to do next, but I
found myself having to keep close track of what the PCs were doing, in case my
monsters could respond. Not so different
from AoO’s in 3e, but there are a lot more possible things to watch out
for. I am hoping that I’ll quickly get
used to what to watch out for.

For example, one of my kobolds had the ability to Shift
(move one square) in response to anyone adjacent to it Shifting. It was a big challenge for the Wizard who
accidentally ended up too close to it, as he could never step back and fire off
a ranged spell…the kobold kept right up on him.
Eventually, (and coolly) the Wizard used his one Action Point to take two Shifts back (one from the Move action, and one from the Action point
action). He was then free to blast away,
defeating that nasty kobold.

The ability for any of the PCs to use the Second Wind power
to regain a quarter of their Hit Points as a Standard Action seemed pretty
powerful at first, and it is, but it is in no way a game breaker. The PCs were all pretty desperate by the time
they used it, and I can see a lot of tactics around when to use it, since it’s
only once per encounter.

The reduced skill list was a huge blessing, and I found that
rolling for the kobolds sneaking around was fun and easy.

Overall, I found the rules familiar enough to get going with
right away, and different enough to get my blood flowing with ideas for new
monsters, tactics, and other possibilities.
Of course, I’ll need a lot more experience to get a solid feel for it
all.

The Story:

Well, this is where my review turns a little less
positive. Even though I kept telling
myself that this was an introductory module, and was meant to evoke feelings of
the halcyon days of AD&D, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I’d read
this story before.

I’m hyper-sensitive to cliché, and I’m always looking for
ways to break the mold, so take this all with a grain of salt. Do I think that players new and old will
enjoy this module? Yes, I think so. Does it break any new ground whatsoever with
its plot or encounters? No.

Perhaps it’s a concession to the grognards out there…new
rules, old module. Fans of the
“Dungeon Crawl Classics” modules from Goodman Games will find Keep on
the Shadowfell to be much in that Old School tradition.

Perhaps it was just that (minor spoiler) kicking off the
module with a random thug attack brought back too many memories of bad old Living City
modules. Oh well.

The story is pretty straightforward. There’s a dungeon, there is a town nearby
where you can get info and supplies, and a big bad guy at the end. There are some nice hooks to get you into the
story, and the encounters are a mix of “clean out the complex”
encounters and “set piece” encounters.

The NPCs are prototypical, and nicely presented, but like
the rest of the story, break little new ground.
I did appreciate the DM’s tips on how to play them however.  ( I will say that Mike Mearls’ “Spulg” character was a lot of fun).

The Final Word:

Keep on the Shadowfell is a fun, nicely produced product
that innovates with its presentation and rules rather that with its story –
which is a good side to error on for the first module of a new edition. If you are curious about 4e, you’ll find
everything you need in here to evaluate the new edition without buying a whole
set of new books, and worst case, you can use the nice poster maps with your
existing game. I definitely recommend
checking it out!